Here’s how to protect yourself from nitrate in Nebraska water

Nebraskans curious about nitrate levels in their drinking water, take heed: You can get your water tested. And once that water is tested, there are a few potential options – though sometimes costly – that can help protect you from high nitrate .

Some private wells are more vulnerable to nitrate contamination and should definitely be tested, such as shallow wells and wells in sandy aquifers, said Katie Pekarek, an educator with Nebraska Extension. 

Though cities are required to keep nitrate levels below 10 parts per million – the Environmental Protection Agency’s decades-old standard – there may be reason to test there, too. Recent research has suggested that lower levels of nitrate may still be linked to potential health risks in children.

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The first step for private well owners is to get a baseline understanding of levels of nitrate, bacteria, pH and other “basic” drinking water contaminants, Pekarek said. Then she recommends testing nitrate concentration every couple years to track any changes.

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There’s the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services Public Health Environmental Laboratory in Lincoln, and DHHS maintains a list of state-certified labs that do testing and analysis. 

The charge for testing at the state lab is $16, Pekarek said. A person can request a kit online and have it mailed to their home.

Another good first stop may be your local Natural Resources District. 

The state is divided into 23 NRDs, local governments dedicated to natural resource conservation and protection. Some offer free water testing or other help, though what’s available varies depending on the NRD, the Flatwater Free Press found.

The Lower Loup NRD, for example, offers free testing for nitrate in-house and encourages landowners to get a verified sample read by a certified lab. The Upper Niobrara White NRD will collect one free sample annually for domestic wells.

The Lower Elkhorn NRD – which created and promoted its own website on nitrate in drinking water – helps private well owners get samples tested for bacteria, nitrate, and two herbicide/pesticide panels, according to assistant manager Brian Bruckner. It covers the cost for owners of registered domestic wells.

The state maintains a well database that’s accessible to the public. Bruckner said many domestic wells aren’t registered, but that his NRD is helping people register. To see testing data: the state’s groundwater clearinghouse has results for wells sampled by state and local governments, including irrigation wells and some domestic wells. 

You can learn more about your community’s water quality, and see historical trends, at Drinking Water Watch. To see nitrate levels at that website, do the following: Search by community, then sort samples by Analyte (click Chem/Rad Samples/Results by Analyte) and choose nitrate-nitrite.

Another resource: Two University of Nebraska-Lincoln programs, Know Your Well and Water Quality + Citizen Science.

Know Your Well provides materials, training, and other resources to high school classrooms so students can identify and sample private wells and run tests in their classrooms, said Sara Brock, a graduate research assistant who helps run the program. Duplicate samples are tested at the Water Sciences Laboratory at UNL.

Results are reported back to well owners. 

Well owners interested in the program can reach out to their NRD, Brock said. If there’s not already a program in the area, you could potentially spur its start. Know Your Well recently won a grant to help it grow. 

Separately, the Water Quality + Citizen Science program provides anyone interested in testing water – whether it be a local stream or their own well – with test strips that provide less specific results. 

Due to high nitrate levels in the well water in Prosser, water is non-potable unless filtered through an RO system. The center faucet on the sink in the village hall is not filtered while the faucet on the left is connected to the filter and safe for drinking. Photo by Laura Beahm for the Flatwater Free Press

The program then provides resources to well owners so they can decide whether and how to pursue more testing. Data is gathered in a map that’s available publicly online, where people can see results and trends over time.

Nebraskans request between 600-1,000 tests every month-long testing window.

About a quarter of wells tested through the program exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water standard of 10 parts per million, said Shannon Bartelt-Hunt, who runs the program..

What should you do if your own test results show high nitrate levels? 

Pekarek said Nebraska Extension recommends that well owners with nitrate concentrations above the EPA drinking water standard take action. The quickest way to do that, short-term, is to find a different water source – perhaps bottled water.

“That is your personal responsibility: to make sure that you are consuming that safe drinking water,” she said, to avoid the health risks associated with high nitrate levels, which are most concerning for women of childbearing age and infants.

Long-term, a person may decide to treat water for their entire home with ion exchange or reverse osmosis, which comes with a hefty price tag: About $20,000, Pekarek said. 

Many people opt for a “point-of-use” system: A reverse osmosis or ion exchange system under the kitchen sink. That fix comes at the more-palatable cost of about $3,000.

A distiller may also be an option, according to NebGuides, a set of educational resources from Nebraska Extension. Each system comes with its drawbacks – there’s a NebGuide for each type of system available online, and the Penn State Extension’s website also offers a good overview.

A person may also be able to drill a new well in a new source of water that isn’t contaminated (in consultation with a professional). That’s not always an option, Pekarek said.

If none of these options are viable, a household might explore whether they’re close enough to a public water supply they can join.

“You want to make sure you can get your drinking water below 10 parts per million,” Pekarek said. “So, if you have to install one of these systems, then you have to test and see: How effective is the system?”

Some NRDs will help. The Upper Niobrara White NRD, for example, helps private well owners and offers cost-sharing of up to 50% for reverse osmosis systems or re-drilling a well. The Lower Elkhorn NRD also has a cost-sharing program.

And there’s other help on the way: the Nebraska Legislature approved a bill this year that directed federal COVID-19 relief money to cover the cost of installing reverse osmosis systems for private well owners with nitrate levels above 10 ppm. 

Property owners will be able to apply for rebates of up to $4,000 per installation, according to the Department of Environment and Energy. More information on the program and applications will be made available online at dee.ne.gov.

By Sara Gentzler

Most recently, Sara was an enterprise reporter at the Omaha World-Herald, where she covered the ultra-dramatic 2022 gubernatorial primary race. Before that, as a state government reporter, she broke stories on Nebraska footing the bill (and refusing to admit it) for deploying state troopers to the southern border and its practice of inking millions in no-bid pandemic contracts with an out-of-state company. She graduated from Gretna High School and Creighton University and ultimately returned to Nebraska from Washington state, where she covered state government for The Olympian and three other newspapers. She and her husband, Alex, welcomed identical twin boys in June. They’re excited to introduce them to Omaha’s parks and music scene.